Skip navigation
The Australian National University

Moritz Lab - Evolutionary biogeography & conservation

Research | Research opportunities | Lab members | Publications | Grants | Links

Professor Craig Moritz

Building 116,
Research School of Biology,
The Australian National University,
Acton, ACT 0200
T: 61255651


Craig did his undergraduate at University of Melbourne (1976-1979), where he developed his passion for evolutionary biology. For his PhD at ANU (1980-1985), he studied chromosome evolution and speciation in arid zone lizards, along the way discovering all-female reproduction in Heteronotia binoei. Then he moved across the Pacific Ocean for a postdoc at University of Michigan (1985-1988; mitochondrial DNA and evolution of parthenogenesis), before returning to a faculty position at The University of Queensland (1988-2000), including a stint as Head of School. From 2000-2012 he was Director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley. From mid 2012 he happily settled at EEG/RSB as a Professor and ARC Laureate Fellow. Craig is also the Director of the joint ANU-CSIRO Centre for Biodiversity Analysis.

Research interests

Biodiversity discovery & conservation
The majority of species remain to be discovered, yet habitats are being lost of affected by global change at an ever increasing rate. New tools from genomics, phylogenetics and spatial environmental analysis are revolutionizing our ability to discover diversity and map hotspots of unique species- or phylo-diversity. Building on previous studies of rainforests in eastern Australia and Brazil, and in California, our lab is now turning its attention to the monsoonal tropics of Australia – perhaps the largest ecologically intact tropical savanna on the planet, and also a frontier for biodiversity discovery.

Biogeography and speciation
How new species form through a combination of selection, drift and isolation is intimately connected with the dynamics of the habitats they occupy in time and space. Our lab seeks to understand this dynamic at multiple scales, from populations and phylogographic lineages to entire clades, often using a comparative approach in particular biogeographic regions (eg. The Australian Wet Tropics Rainforests), and all in the context of current and paleo-environments. As a continental-scale island with a largely endemic biota, Australia provides an excellent opportunity for such studies.

Biological responses to climate change
Though existing species have persisted through multiple episodes of climate change in the past, we are entering a new phase of rapid, human-caused climate change with no analogue in the recent geological past. Understanding how species respond by migration or adaptation is key to finding strategies to promote persistence of biodiversity. Our lab studies this through a combination of comparative studies of phenotypic and genomic diversity in across environments in space and time. One potential solution is to identify long-term climatic refugia across the landscape - also likely centers of local diversity – and seek to protect these and habitat linkages to them. We also are using a combination of population genomics and data on trait and environments to test whether peripheral isolates of rainforest lizards are better adapted to climate fluctuation than populations in core rainforests.

Student research opportunities

New approaches to discovering biodiversity and understanding its response to climate change

New technologies will be used to predict and discover biodiversity hotspots in Australia, especially in the, as yet, poorly-known monsoonal tropics.        Show more detail...
I welcome bright and highly motivated students with interests relating broadly to any of the above areas. Students are expected to take the initiative to develop their own projects and, over time, to learn to function independently as research scientists. The lab will include research opportunities for outstanding undergraduates, Hons, PhD and postdoctoral scholars. Within currently funded projects, there are specific opportunities for micro- and macro-evolutionary studies of fauna (especially, but not exclusively lizards) across the monsoonal tropics of northern Australia.

Lab members

  • Rosa Agudo (Visiting Fellow)
  • Mozes Blom (PhD student)
  • Gaye Bourke (Technical Officer)
  • Jason Bragg (Postdoctoral Scientist)
  • Matthew Brandley (Visiting Fellow)
  • Josephine Davies (PhB Student)
  • Renata Magalhaes (Special Project Student)
  • Craig Moritz (Lab Leader)
  • Catherine Noble (Honours Student)
  • Huw Ogilvie (PhD student)
  • Joshua Penalba (PhD student)
  • Sally Potter (Laboratory Manager)
  • Renae Pratt (Research Officer)
  • Daniel Rosauer (Postdoctoral Scientist)
  • Mitchell Scott (Research Assistant)
  • Ana Silva (Occupational Trainee)
  • Claire Stephens (Centre Coordinator)
  • Jeana Wong (Special Project Student)

» Go to lab directory


Selected publications

Fujita, M. K., J. A. McGuire, S. C. Donnellan, & C. Moritz (2010): “Diversification & persistence at the arid-monsoonal interface: Australia-wide biogeography of the Bynoe’s gecko (Heteronotia binoei; Gekkonidae).” Evolution 64:2293-2314

Bell, R.C., J. L. Parra, M. Tonione, C. Hoskin, J. B. MacKenzie, S. E. Williams & C. Moritz (2010): “Patterns of persistence & isolation indicate resilience to climate change in montane rainforest lizards.” Molecular Ecology, 19 (12): 2531-2544.

Moritz C., C. J. Hoskins, J. B. MacKenzie, B. L. Phillips, M. Tonione, N. Silva, J. VanDerWal, S. E. Williams, & C. H. Graham (2009): “Identification & dynamics of a cryptic suture zone in tropical rainforest.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B Biological Sciences 276: 11235-1244.

Carnaval, A.C., M. J. Hickerson, C. F. B. Haddad, M. Rodrigues & C. Moritz (2009): “Stability predicts genetic diversity in the Brazilian Atlantic forest hotspot.” Science 323: 785-789

Moritz, Craig, J. L. Patton, C. J. Conroy, J. L. Parra, G. C. White, & S. R. Beissinger (2008): “Impact of a century of climate change on small-mammal communities in Yosemite National Park, USA.” Science 322: 261-264.

Graham, C. H., C. Moritz & S. E. Williams (2006). "Habitat history improves prediction of biodiversity in rainforest fauna." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 103: 632-636

Hoskin, C. J., M. Higgie K. R. McDonald & C. Moritz (2005). "Reinforcement drives rapid allopatric speciation." Nature (London) 437: 1353-1356.

Hugall, A., Craig Moritz, A. Moussalli & J. Stanisic (2002). "Reconciling paleodistribution models & comparative phylogeography in the Wet Tropics rainforest land snail Gnarosophia bellendenkerensis (Brazier 1875)." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 99: 6112-6117.

Moritz, Craig (2002). "Strategies to protect biological diversity & the evolutionary processes that sustain it." Systematic Biology 51: 238-254.

Moritz, C. (1994). "Defining 'evolutionary significant units' for conservation." Trends in Ecology and Evolution 9(10): 373-375.

Moritz, C. & W. M. Brown (1987). "Tandem Duplications in Animal Mitochondrial DNA Species Variation in Incidence & Gene Content among Lizards." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 84(20): 7183-7187.

Moritz, C. (1983). "Parthenogenesis in the Endemic Australian Lizard Heteronotia binoei Gekkonidae." Science (Washington D C) 220(4598): 735-737

All publications

Click here to see a full list of publications on the ISI website...

Recent grants

Moritz, New approaches to discovering biodiversity and understanding its response to past climate change. ARC Laureate Fellowship (2012-2017)
From global to local scales, biodiversity - the variety of genes, species and ecosystems - is geographically patchy. Some geographic areas have more species than others (richness) and some have a higher proportion of unique diversity (endemism). Understanding how such “hotspots” of richness and endemism formed and were sustained in response to past environmental change is a key challenge in evolutionary and ecological biology. It is also highly relevant to conservation in the face of rapid environmental change. Improving knowledge of how biodiversity responded to past change, and developing the ability to predict geographic foci of diversity and endemism at relevant spatial scales is central to improving conservation policy, planning and practice. The Australian continent provides a superb template on which to tackle these globally relevant questions as (i) much of its biodiversity has evolved in isolation from that on other land masses, (ii) it represents a single mega-diverse nation encompassing a wide range of biomes, and (iii) there is a rich baseline of information on species distributions and environmental variation to build from. There is also a great opportunity to transform the science underpinning species discovery and biogeography by integrating new capabilities in genomics, phylogenetic inference and spatial modeling with traditional approaches in systematics.

The proposed research aims to:
1. Improve understanding of biodiversity dynamics in response to climate change.
2. Develop and test methods for predicting hotspots of genetic and species endemism.
3. Improve the predictive and analytical power of biogeography and species discovery.
4. Improve policy and practice relevant to conserving biodiversity.

Moritz, Keogh et al. Phylogenomic assessment of conservation priorities in 2 biodiversity hotspots. ARC Linkage (2013 - 2015)
The Pilbara and Kimberley regions of Western Australia are renowned for the great natural beauty associated with their unique and ancient landscapes, the mineral wealth associated with those landscapes, and their high biodiversity. These regions are front and centre of the booming Australian mining industry, an industry credited with keeping Australia out of the recent world economic downturn. Science-driven biodiversity conservation of these nationally recognised biodiversity hotspots might seem at odds with this economic reality, but this is not the case. For example, in May of this year the Western Australian government released its “Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy” which outlines its investment of 63 million dollars over the next five years in a range of new initiatives aimed at sustainable development of the region. One of the most important is the creation of a series of Kimberley Wilderness Parks, which will comprise an interconnected system of over 3.5 million ha – one of the largest in the world. There is a very strong desire by the Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) to ensure that this massive conservation effort and expenditure will adequately protect the unique genetic and species diversity of these regions. At the core of our collaboration is the intent to provide rigorous estimates of biodiversity value of current and proposed reserves. In doing so we will transfer key knowledge and new technologies between partners, and train young researchers at the confluence of biodiversity analysis and conservation planning. This leverages substantial past and present ARC and DEC funded research to provide an integrated assessment with immediate relevance to on-ground conservation. For many years each of us worked towards improved understanding of diversity of plants and animals in these regions, but from different kinds of institutions (universities, museums, state government) and with different research drivers. Our overarching goal now is to combine efforts and use the highly endemic Pilbara and Kimberley regions as demonstration cases for cutting edge biodiversity conservation assessment and planning based on hard science. Achieving this goal will place Australia at the global forefront in protecting evolutionary as well as species diversity.

Aim 1: Apply cutting-edge genomic and statistical methods to identity previously cryptic lineages and estimate spatial patterns of lineage and phylogenetic endemism across the ancient landscapes of the Pilbara and Kimberley.
Aim 2: Quantify genetic conservation value of current and planned conservation areas and translate results into a form most usable for conservation decision-making.
Aim 3: Develop methods and capacity for next-generation phylogenomic approaches.

Moritz & Keogh. Integrative taxonomy of Australian  monsoonal herpetofauna. ABRS (2013-2015)
We propose to undertake detailed systematic studies of several herpetological taxa for which existing genetic data suggest a significant number of unrecognised species, especially in the monsoonal tropics. This study will confirm current taxonomic status and describe new species in the Myobatrachid frog genus Uperoleia, the gekkonid species complex Heteronotia planiceps, and within the six monsoonal species of the skink genus Carlia. Following best-practice “integrative taxonomy”, we will use a combination of multi-locus genetic and phenotypic analyses to delimit species, establish a robust phylogeny for each group, and map the distribution of each resulting species. Using existing records and predictive modelling, we will undertake additional fieldwork to fill key sampling gaps and establish the geographic range of each taxon.

Phillips and Moritz. Peripheral isolates as hotbeds of diversity. ARC-DP (2013-2015)
Here we focus on small, isolated populations at the edge of a species’ range (peripheral isolates). We focus on these populations as potential hotbeds of adaptive diversity under climate change, and as ideal experimental systems in which to answer fundamental questions in ecology and evolution. We will interrogate peripheral isolates using a combination of cutting-edge molecular genetic technology and intensive field and lab work on whole animals and their phenotypes. Our work will be conducted in Australia’s Wet Tropics rainforest; a region whose historical biogeography and paleoclimate is remarkably well known; whose many endemic species are threatened by climate change; and where ecological surveys and genetic resources (e.g., multilocus phylogeographies, and complete transcriptomes) are already in place for key taxa.
The overall goal of this project is to predict and then assess the location of climatically-relevant adaptive diversity in peripheral isolates of the Wet Tropics. In achieving this broad aim, we will achieve several specific aims including to:
1. Develop novel spatial analyses to predict the location of isolates containing maximally divergent phenotypes.
2. Compare climatically-relevant phenotypes for a model species across gradients from central to peripheral populations, in the context of differential selection strength and rates of gene flow.
3. Explore the genetic basis of divergent phenotypes through a combination of population genomic and crossing experiments.


Back to top

Updated:  21 December 2010/Responsible Officer:  Director RSB /Page Contact:  RSB Webmaster